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In Dubious Battle Study Guide & Plot Summary

This Study Guide consists of approximately 74 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of In Dubious Battle.
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In Dubious Battle Summary & Study Guide Description

In Dubious Battle Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Literary Precedents and a Free Quiz on In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck.

Plot Summary

In Dubious Battle, published in 1936, follows two main characters, Mac and Jim, through the process of an apple pickers' strike in a small California town. At the beginning of the book Jim joins the Communist Party, and Mac takes him along when he goes to try to agitate the pickers and incite them to strike after the growers' association cuts their wages to fifteen cents. Steinbeck paints a watercolor picture of migrant workers in a small California town during the tough years following the crash and depression of 1929. He shows clearly how the workers lived, how small farmers suffered and how grass-roots organizations, such as the American Communist Party, tried to effect changes that would improve life for the poor workers.

Most of the story takes place in the fictional town of Torgas Valley, California, where the main economy centers around apple orchards and almost all the power in the town is controlled by three people who control the banks and financing companies, the growers' association and the legal system. The time frame of the mid-nineteen thirties is before unionization in the US and right at the beginning of the social movement that followed the Great Depression and preceded WWII. At that time migrant workers were among the lowest paid and most ignored workers, and much of John Steinbeck's work centered around the lives and culture of this group.

Because of the way Steinbeck explores the characters of migrant workers, their culture and the hard facts of their lives, readers sympathize greatly with both the migrant workers and the "radicals," agitators and members of the American Communist Party. One gets the feeling that Steinbeck rather identified with both groups, because he points out the broad cultural reaction to the idea of communism in contrast to the reality of the life of these characters. While it is mentioned that Mac gets his "orders" from someone higher up, the origin is never identified, and Mac seems to act quite independently, as do the others who are party members. The derogatory "red" is used often in contrast to what is being done and the explanation of the motivation of the main characters. Though it is never actually stated, readers are given the idea that this is not a Russian plot or a spin-off of the Soviet Communist Party, but rather a grass-roots American movement.

Readers never really learn a great deal about any one character, as the third person viewpoint never actually delves into any character's mind but only shows what they say and do. Jim is shown at the beginning as leaving his solitary lodgings in a rooming house to begin a new life as a worker for the party, if he is accepted. He is lonely and needs to belong to something. Being a party member empowers him and makes him feel valuable. He and Mac go to Torgas Valley to agitate the workers whose wages for picking apples have been cut. During this process, readers learn the stated and some of the unstated motivations of the individual party members we meet, and we see the growing trend toward seeking social justice.

Jim and Mac work with the migrants, especially London, to incite a strike for the wages to be raised back to what they were previously. They are also trying to recruit more party members as they go and develop a better organization locally. They are self-funded from donations from sympathizers and the earnings of party members. Mac is teaching Jim, so readers learn the motivation behind each action they take. When they first reach town, they visit a lunch wagon owned by a known sympathizer, Al Anderson, and learn where most of the migrants are camped. They will join them and work from within the ranks. They find the natural leader and take an opportunity to ingratiate themselves by helping London's daughter-in-law through a difficult childbirth. She has been denied entrance to the local hospital, and there is only a crazy old woman, possibly a midwife, in attendance. Mac knows enough about the process and about hygiene to help her while Jim keeps her calm.

The next day, Mac and Jim go to work in an apple orchard with the others. They find the natural leaders and begin to organize the workers. The field managers of the growers' association try to recruit spies among the workers, including Jim. One old man, Dan, falls from an old ladder the second day and breaks his hip. This angers the workers enough so they are ready to strike, especially after it is pointed out that they will have their wages cut by the cotton growers also if they accept this treatment by the apple growers. They have organized the strikers, and they persuade Al's father, a local small farmer, to let them camp on five acres of his land. They get the strikers to elect Dakin as the general leader and a couple of dozen squad leaders. They pick Dakin in preference to London because London has a temper and Dakin appears to be more controlled. They organize a tent city with proper sanitary facilities, a doctor (a volunteer who often works with them, but is not a party member) and a cooking area. Food donations, earned by another party member, will feed the camp. The workers pick Anderson's crop for free and store it in his barn.

On the second day of the strike, the strikers meet the train, which is bringing in scab labor. One of the original group of party members, Joy, who is painted as quite touched in the head, steps off the train and starts to bring several strike breakers over to the side of the strikers. He is shot, allegedly by a vigilante. This enrages the strikers, and the local authorities back away in fear of the mob. On the third day, large groups go out to picket and persuade the scabs not to pick, and after the group beats up a group of scabs, Jim is shot as they are leaving. Dakin goes nuts when vigilantes destroy his shiny new truck. The coroner comes for Joy's body, and plans are made for a public funeral.

The growers' association publishes the decision of the county to feed the striking workers, but they fails to publish that they then immediately rescinded the decision. It becomes more difficult to solicit donations when people think the government is caring for the ungrateful workers. Dick, their main solicitor for donations, manages to romance a fat lady he would have preferred to pass up and gets them a couple of cows and a calf plus sacks of lima beans to tide them over another day or two. Several violent incidents ensue, and then Al's lunch wagon is destroyed by vigilantes. Al is severely beaten. Anderson wants out after this, but he does not act until the vigilantes burn his barn after luring away the guards. Sam retaliates by burning the house of one of the three who control the valley.

Anderson files a complaint against the workers, and they are ordered off the land by the sheriff. Mac has made plans for his people to get away, and he shares them with Jim and then Sam, who has returned on the run after being caught setting the fire to Hunter's house. He finally shares the plans with London, who has decided to join the party. The doctor vanishes, and they think that he has been captured. The group has not yet decided whether to run or fight the next morning, when Mac and Jim are lured away by reports that the doctor has been found severely injured. Jim is shot in the face, and at the end, his body is taken back for display to the workers, whom we assume from previous statements about mob actions, will now be incited to fight.

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This section contains 1,305 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our In Dubious Battle Study Guide
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In Dubious Battle from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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